COVID-19 has exacerbated barriers to economic integration for some refugee women, report reveals

Refugee women in OECD countries have seen the barriers they face to economic integration worsen post-COVID-19, with many struggling to find flexible working opportunities. This is according to a new report, ‘Barriers to economic integration faced by refugee women’ published by law firm DLA Piper with a review and input from the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The report included personal testimonies from 15 female refugees in OECD countries and 10 experts from NGOs supporting refugees in France, Germany, Italy, and the UK. The research team was led by Dr Awmaima Amrayaf, a refugee and legal assistant in DLA Piper’s pro bono team.

The report focused on three key areas: the barriers that were particularly exacerbated by COVID-19, such as increased childcare responsibilities due to the closing of schools; the persistent barriers faced by female refugees; and the effects of these obstacles on the career prospects of refugee women.

With women and girls making up around 50% of the refugee, internally displaced or stateless population (according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), women who are unaccompanied, pregnant, heads of households, disabled or elderly are especially vulnerable. Gender-based violence, discrimination on the basis of sex and other human rights violations against women have contributed to making the female refugee integration process in host societies harder than for male peers.

Key findings

The report found that the pandemic particularly exacerbated several barriers to the economic integration of refugee women. They included:

  • Disproportionate childcare responsibilities: This became an insurmountable challenge when school and childcare facilities were unavailable, and many employers failed to accommodate women through flexible working.
  • Informal employment and training: Many women were particularly dependent on this form of employment and training, which were the first to be cut as a result of the pandemic.
  • Limited access to technology: The lack of digital literacy was particularly challenging when most services moved online. The report revealed that female refugees who didn’t have laptops couldn’t access job applications from their mobile phones.
  • Persistent barriers: There are also many persistent barriers that impede equal opportunities for refugee women. This included discrimination as many refugee women face intersectional discrimination in all areas of society, which greatly impedes efforts to find employment. Moreover, refugee women often suffer from trauma that remains unaddressed due to a lack of psychological support.

The interviewees also discussed the impediments they faced in accessing employment resulting in a wage gap between them and men. They often found themselves relegated to the informal economy, in conditions rife for exploitation. All interviewees also said they’d sacrificed their professional ambitions because of a lack of opportunity.

The report highlights the need for collaboration to provide comprehensive and context-sensitive training and education, the lack of which emerged as a primary concern among interviewees. It also stresses the need for increased services for mothers, who were increasingly isolated. Additionally, the report urges all actors to include refugee women in the decision-making processes that affect them, as this is the only way to ensure their concerns are truly taken into account.

The report advises governments to support municipalities in implementing a strength-based case management approach towards integration services. And it stresses the role civil society organisations have to play in ensuring that support for refugee women is individualised, comprehensive, and specifically targets the needs of women.

Commenting on the report, Dr Awmaima Amrayaf, legal officer at DLA Piper, said: “This report provides important insights into the struggle of refugee women to integrate into the labour market in the UK and some European countries. It sends a clear message from those women to government, businesses and other stakeholders saying: we are here, we have potential, we are trying without success, we need more help, please pay attention to our needs.”

Read the full report

Executive summary